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High Court Won’t Block Order to Move Inmates Threatened by Virus

May 26, 2020, 6:24 PM

A divided U.S. Supreme Court left in force a judge’s order that could require federal prison officials to move hundreds of inmates out of an Ohio facility where at least nine people have died from the coronavirus.

The justices on Tuesday rejected a bid from President Donald Trump’s administration, which sought to block the order on grounds it would undermine the Bureau of Prisons’ systemic response to the pandemic and force transfers that would risk spreading the virus.

The court left open the possibility the administration could file a new emergency request later because the administration had challenged only the judge’s April 22 order, and not a more stringent follow-up the judge issued on May 19.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch said they would have blocked the April 22 order. They gave no explanation.

The case was one of the first to test the high court’s approach toward prisoners whose confined quarters put them at heightened risk of Covid-19 infection.

Supreme Court Rejects Texas Inmates on Covid-19 Prevention

The Elkton Federal Correctional Institution has emerged as a hot spot for Covid-19, with more than 100 inmates and staff having tested positive. The low-security facility in western Ohio houses more than 2,300 prisoners in dormitory-style units that make social distancing difficult.

U.S. District Judge James Gwin ordered the prison to move about 840 inmates who either are over 65 or have health conditions that make them especially vulnerable should they contract the virus. Gwin said officials should consider compassionate release, home confinement or transfer to a different prison.

Four inmates who sued say no prisoners have been moved as a result of the April 22 order, even as the virus has spread throughout the facility.

Gwin issued the May 19 order because of what he said were the prison’s “limited efforts” to reduce the Covid-19 risks and “poor progress” in moving inmates. The May 19 order requires the Bureau of Prisons to provide an individualized explanation for each inmate who isn’t granted home confinement, compassionate release or transfer to another facility.

The case is Williams v. Wilson, 19A1041.

(Adds explanation of order in third paragraph)

To contact the reporter on this story:
Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net

Laurie Asséo, Larry Liebert

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.